Can Extinction Rebellion Put Climate Change ‘Beyond Politics’?


LondonInto Trafalgar Square on Wednesday, two days into the latest round of climate protests by Extinction Rebellion, comes Stanley Johnson—a supporter of the movement and also Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s dad. Stanley Johnson joins a panel of three other politicians: one Labour, one Green, and one Liberal Democrat. On a dais near the center of the square, surrounded by tents and rebels (as members of Extinction Rebellion call themselves), the four politely debate the question “Can traditional politics cope with or respond to the current ecological emergency?” While Johnson senior speaks, someone in the crowd waves a blue and yellow EU flag, with Extinction Rebellion’s hourglass logo glued to the middle.

The moment captures the absurdity of British politics: Stanley Johnson, a former member of the European Parliament, speaking genially to protesters with the EU flag in the background while his son dismisses Extinction Rebellion as “uncooperative crusties” (British for vagrants) and tries to lurch the United Kingdom out of Europe.

It also points to a tension in Extinction Rebellion, or XR. The movement is known for its mantra “Beyond politics.” It has no stance on Brexit—the outcome of which will likely be decided this week—and it refuses to endorse a candidate for the general election that is likely to follow. The UK is in a full-blown constitutional crisis. Against that backdrop, what could “beyond politics” possibly mean?

Extinction Rebellion began just under a year ago, when rebels occupied five bridges in London. Since then, the movement has taken off. In April it blocked four major intersections for over a week, which led to mass arrests, traffic jams, and lots of press. With press came money: XR is now one of the best-funded protest movements in the world. It has affiliate chapters in more than 60 countries. (Because its organizing structure is horizontal, each local XR group is autonomous.) October 7 marked the start of a “global rebellion”: two weeks of nonviolent civil disobedience in cities all over the world, from Melbourne (where rebels organized a “nudie run” and glued themselves to buildings) to New York (where they doused the Wall Street bull in fake blood).

But the epicenter remains London, where tens of thousands of rebels from across the UK have converged on six sites around Westminster. An XR pamphlet in the Tube warned, “Londoners: take two weeks off work.” Despite heavy police response—1,300 arrests as of Sunday and an order demanding that rebels restrict their protests to Trafalgar in anticipation of the queen’s speech on Monday—XR has temporarily transformed the Westminster area into an intensely policed charivari. The choice of location is no accident. XR intends to literally stop politics as usual.

At the base of Nelson’s Column, three huge banners spell out Extinction Rebellion’s demands: “Tell the truth,” “Act now,” and “Beyond politics.” The first asks the UK government to declare a climate emergency. The second calls for legislation that would bind the UK to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2025. Both of these are easily understood and have prompted action. In May, Parliament (but not the government‚ declared a climate emergency. In June the UK became the first nation to pass binding legislation to reach net-zero emissions–but only by 2050 and without a plan for how to get there.

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